The Psychological Illness of Racism

by Dr. Rebecca Klott

Like many of you, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster these past few weeks as the nation has erupted into protests after the brutal murder of George Floyd. These protests have been a long time coming, as so many black lives have been ripped apart, both literally and figuratively, by systematic institutional racism. There has been a tinderbox of years of rage and grief waiting for a match, and the most recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd lit the country on fire.

It has been frightening for many white people to watch these events unfold, and it has been traumatic for many people of color to relive yet another murder, yet another loss of a promised life at the hands of people who dehumanize them. Understandably, many people of color are worn out by trying to point out the giant elephant in the room—the psychological illness of our nation. They can’t help but wonder if the outrage of white people over these deaths will last or if it will yet again be co-opted by white people and made into something other than what it is—America’s great racist secret.

It is during these times, however, that great change can happen. It is when old things shatter that transformation and growth can occur. It is when we look straight at our illnesses that things can begin to heal. For some of the white people I’ve been talking with these past days, these events have cast a light on their own racist thoughts. For some, the call of activism has been heard—they want to grow toward antiracism and want to listen better to those black and brown voices demanding to be heard.

For me, these murders and protests, have demanded that I re-examine my participation in institutional racism and reminded me to silence my defenses and my mouth in order to open myself to the feedback from people of color I need in order to grow. I’m reminded that being antiracist isn’t just important for the black and brown members of my community—though it is indeed so important for them that we white people look at this sickness—but it is important for my own mental health. Racism, or the ability to dehumanize an entire group of people, is a psychological illness that harms us all. I hope you will all join me in this journey.

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